Ah, That’s The Problem

My teenagers hated me. Of course they didn’t really, but their behavior seemed to convey that. You know, that snarky, barely acceptable language, accompanied by the mandatory eye roll, (what was in that calvareum that was so interesting that they kept looking up there), the “You’re Embarrassing Me” charge (what, what was I doing breathing?) flew from their mouths constantly.

I tried everything in the Mother’s Make Believe Handbook. I went at them directly like a lion tamer. “No rude behavior, you shouldn’t talk to me that way”. “I am the adult here.” But my efforts of taming my teen lions with a whip and a chair were a disaster, all I did was turn up the heat and make the lion hungrier.

Then I tried guilt. “After all I do for you this is how you treat me?” All that got was so many eye rolls I almost called 911 to make sure my child wasn’t seizing.

I wasn’t above the bribe. I sat at my kitchen table drumming my fingers. “No, Goldfish won’t do it. Gummies are a big no. iTunes gift card? It turns out I couldn’t reward them for being stinkers. It was against the moral code of my motherly religion. Boy this wasn’t easy. You should see the things I used to get them to do for a smiling orange fish cracker. Now I had the feeling if I couldn’t provide something 5’8” and female they weren’t going to be very interested.

Shucks. What I had here was a real problem. But I had to do something. Unchecked these wonderful kids could turn out to be rotten and I wasn’t about to let that happen after eighteen, sixteen, and fourteen years of investment in them.

A problem. A problem. A problem. Then I got it! It was a problem, a math problem and here was the equation

My kid + X = Respectful human being

All I had to do was solve for x, and I was a little ahead of the game since I had already failed a bunch of times. Note, this is the ironic secret magic of managing teens, if we can outlast them, then the game is half won.

So I kept trying. I lowered my New Jersey accented voice in public, I car pooled like I was training with Michael Phelps, Yummy dinners appeared on my table. There was a slight improvement that could only be measured on an incredibly accurate scientific scale, but I still wasn’t getting the warm, respectful tones I yearned for, it felt more like walking on land  mines.

But I love math. There’s always an answer and the one thing I had was plenty of will power and investment. So this time I tried silence. I super glued my lips and used my hair dryer on my ears to make sure the path to my brain wouldn’t be hindered by, well, you know.

It worked. After a few days of only listening, only supporting, not jumping in with “the answer” their tone changed. Their shoulders softened and I think the eye roll quotient reached an all time low. And that’s when I struck. “Guys I will always embarrass you, it’s a law of the universe as sure as gravity and it happens between children and their parents since the beginning of time. But if you quietly and respectfully tell me how I can change, I will do my best to respect you. But I won’t tolerate rude or pararude behavior. I am not intentionally embarrassing you, but you are intentionally acting unacceptably and hurtfully to me.”

Wow, before my eyes, my equation was solved. Instead of rolling their eye, an actual  light of understanding appeared.  Smiles, better behavior….for now. Then onto the next math problem… At least now I am prepared.

Would Scooby Doo Make a Good Parent? Do Kids Need Detectives? Yes and No

Today I am starting this blog with the sincerest hope that you are having a good day.

Wow!  Intentionality is powerful! I started my New Year with the intention of being as sincerely positive as I can.

But that requires making an effort. Happiness is sometimes a turtle walking slowly toward us and sometimes a wave crashing over us so fast we almost miss the emotion. But either way, the problem is that if we wait for the turtle or the wave, happiness may come but not as fast as if we herald it.

So what does this have to do with kids? Everything. It is my observation that as our children become older, we forget to really “watch” them. We are so relieved to not change diapers, wake up at two am, or stop the car because our newly potty trained kid needs to go to the bathroom, again.

Sometimes I feel this exodus from parenting teenagers so strongly that I half expect Moses to appear to help the fleeing parents part a body of water for their faster escape.

And that’s a shame because beginnings of autonomy is not independence, and as much as they resemble adults they are not. Teens still need parents but what happens frequently in this transitional period is that the only communication between kids and their parents is filled with conflict.

Parent laments: “They don’t talk.” “They don’t want to be with us.” “I don’t understand them.”

And it’s true, most adolescents have not learned the life long skill of excellent communication, and most of them have NO ability to facilitate relationships with non teens. And they shouldn’t. Adults are the teachers and parents in their world. So sadly, much of what I observe is that the only communication that happens between teens and their parents is when something needs to be corrected, when a parent is disappointed, when an infraction has happened. We don’t mean it, but we have become people no one would voluntarily talk to.

And that’s where intentions and Scooby come in. Parents HAVE to pay attention to their teens, even though it’s frustrating, many times unrewarding, and confusing. We have to monitor their safety, discuss morality, and hopefully guide them to being their best selves.

Which is a long way to say that we have to have the intention of catching them at some good stuff in between the yuck. I’m not talking about achievements, I’m talking about a moment when they smiled instead of putting their bothersome brother in the microwave. A turtle moment, something that could be missed because it’s expected, and didn’t need correction.

Surprise yourself. Pay attention and quietly tell your kids that you’re proud that they did their homework last night, or that you are really relieved that they drive to school safely everyday.

You’ll be surprised. You both will. And this isn’t just something we can do for our children, we can do it for each other. Being nice is as much environmental as it is genetic. It just requires choice.

Thank you for reading my blog, I am touched that you take important minutes out of your day to share my thoughts and hopes for our children. I think you are amazing.

Trick or Treat or What?

This blog isn’t about goblins, ghosts, or ghouls. It’s about the importance of manners, especially in children.

I didn’t start out as a manner snob. I was a Jersey Girl, raised and educated in Northern New Jersey. I was fluent in obscene hand gestures before I spoke my first word. Before fourth grade grammar, I thought curse words were adjectives, like yellow or big. It stayed like that for a long time. And then two things happened. We had children, and we unexpectedly moved to the south. Not south like South Hampton, or South Jersey, South like the real deal, New Orleans.

My world changed. I went from a proud, one hundred thousand dollar in debt, newly pressed doctor, to Miss Ellen in my very first encounter. Miss Ellen. Not only was my degree gone, but my husband too.

I tried not to hit someone. I clasped my hands behind my back to stave off the inevitable double flip off. I was after all feeling a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Miss Ellen? Who the Hell was That?

In the south, at least where we lived, Miss or Mister First Name was how children were expected to address adults. All adults, rich, poor, black or white. And here’s the funny thing, children weren’t just expected to address them, they actually were expected to look in the adult’s eyes and pay them some attention.

That kind of got my attention. As much as I hated the Miss, as much as that made me think I had to learn how to make clothes out of curtains like Miss Scarlet O’Hara, I liked being looked in the eye. I liked being respected. I liked that the children addressed me with something other than a grunt, or even worse, a lack of being addressed.

I kind of got attached to it like a static filled sock sticking to a pair of your favorite panty hose. And I thought I’d faint the first time a man stood up because I entered the room. Not because he was trying to beat me to the bar, but because he was trained that standing up is a sign of respect for a woman re-entering a social engagement. Even though I was so liberated that I had survived an all male surgical rotation where one attending told me to go home, quit med school and get married to one of his very eligible residents, I went to the bathroom five times that night. It was that nice to be  treated so courteously.

And then I figured something out as my own children assimilated to the Miss Ellen world we had landed in.  There was the Yes Ma’am part. In the south when a parent addresses a child, with one of those questions that invariably get an eye roll from the kid, like did you do your homework? when was the last time you brushed your teeth? are you going out in that? All those questions and even sillier ones are answered with a Yes or No Ma’am.

Oh be still my heart to have a child automatically acknowledge that they heard the question. Oh the uncanny lesson I was getting in having my children automatically know that I expected a respectful answer from them every single time I spoke to them. Ahhhh, the civility of a house where children respond politely to adults.

I still get complements from people about my children’s manners, even though we moved up to the cold and rainy Northwest. It turns out manners can do more than sunshine up here. Manners remind people that they are important. Not just specific ones like parents, teachers and police, but restaurant servers, baristas, and cleaning people.

So…where ever you live…and who ever you are… I hope you’ll read this and remember how wonderful it is to be treated respectfully. I hope that you think it’s important for children to be appropriate, and for their adult parents to mirror the same behavior. My hair has gotten less big over the years, and now it’s completely fallen out, but the manners have stuck. All of them. It turns out that respect isn’t regional, it isn’t optional, it’s a condition that makes the world a littler nicer.

Thank you so much for reading this.

Why Is It So Hard To Talk To Our Children About Sex?…And maybe other things as well

I have often wondered why it is so difficult to talk to our children about sex. Why “THE TALK” is whispered in dark, dangy hallways, why soprano voices go baritone and why some huge, marine type baritones become soprano at the mere thought of talking to their children about sex.

If it wasn’t so important it would be hilarious. Corporate leaders and your favorite milk delivery man both equally flummoxed with the terror of addressing their children.

But then again, fighting, asserting your manhood, does seem a lot easier than being merely being, garden variety vulnerable. There are no Heisman awards for vulnerability, no visits to the White House for most vulnerable kid on the team, no papperazzi following around vulnerable ordinary citizens who have just explained the purpose of a penis to their wide eyed son or daughter.

So in contemplating this topic, I couldn’t help myself from contemplating why it is so darned hard…and then I got it.

Penis and vaginas, breasts and armpit hair are kind of like that first weird baby tooth. However, unlike that first tooth, which can be ungainly, silly, and awkward, that bundle of joy is still a bundle. We haven’t yet excepted that under all that soft, colorful material is an individual. An individual who is separate from us no matter how many swaddling things we buy, no matter how long we let them sleep in our bed, no matter how long or short we offer them our own breast. They are their own. And we delude ourselves daily that they are not.

And that’s why the sex talk is so hard. There is no cute blanket to hide your child’s secondary sexual characteristics and revert them back to the cooing mass of baby who was only dependent on you. That genitalia is theirs. For life. Proof that they are their own people. People who will eventually use those parts to have full and hopefully lovely lives.

And I think that’s why it’s so hard to talk to them. I think many of us haven’t acknowledged that they are indeed separate from us. That our love, which feels so darned binding, isn’t binding at all. It was never meant to. It was a fairytale we told ourselves over and over and over.

The best kind of love empowers. It recognizes the separateness of people and celebrates it. It doesn’t try to own, dictate, or suffocate. It breathes.

So when you are ready…if you ever are ready…try this. Instead of thinking of that perfect little bundle who you took home from the hospital, imagine the adult that will one day live in their own space, with their own friends and have their own life. And then take a big breath of love and empower that almost adult about sex. Share your thoughts, listen to their thoughts, explain the joy of being touched, the consequences of using  sex for narcissistic pleasure, the importance and beauty of sex between mutually consulting, age appropriate, religiously agreed upon boundaries.

And then go up to your attic and find one of those cast off baby blankets and wrap yourself in it. You have not lost your child, you have merely opened their portal to adulthood. And now that that portal is open, so many wonderful and trying things can be discussed.

The 10 Most Important Pictures That Won’t Make It Into That Baby Album

As my children are preparing for that crazy, semi independent world called college, I have had a chance to reflect upon their earlier years. And it has given me pause…

I am not really a hindsight kind of person, especially now that I need reading glasses to see almost anything at all, but I do wish that as I was joyously immortalizing all those spectacular baby firsts (you know, those first smiles, first tooth, first spaghetti sauce all over the face…ok maybe we were the only ones that rejoiced in smeared facial food) I kind of wish someone had whispered these words into my ear,

“Sweet well meaning mother, enjoy these moments but please make room in your heart for the other firsts as well. They may be painful, but your role as a parent isn’t to protect as much as it is to prepare. Find the joy in these firsts as they are a chance to grow as a parent and help your child grow into an adult. Don’t try to sweep them under the rug like unwanted dust bunnies, frame them, celebrate them, make room for them in that album. And whatever you do, please don’t expect that your baby’s life will only be filled with happiness. Life is most delicious when it is fully realized.”

The Album Of Painful Firsts

1. Pain is part of life for EVERYONE in every stage of their lives. Babies get gas, toddlers get bitten and teenagers? Well teenagers live most of their life on the precariously steep side of pain. Growing up hurts sometimes. Don’t be afraid of these times, expect them. Help your child through them.

2. Teachers/Day Care Workers/Coaches may suck, get it wrong, or really not like your kid. While most of these people are awesome or at least well intended, there will be days, weeks and sometimes years when your child and their teacher don’t see things eye to eye. It happens. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t advocate, but I am saying that you should understand that even this is a part of life that you can work WITH instead of AGAINST. Didn’t you have an unfair teacher? A less than kind boss? A supervisor who wasn’t very super at all? The unfair teacher (as long as they are not abusive) has an important lesson to teach…RESILIENCE. Believe in your child, especially as they get older, expect that they can handle to be in the company of someone who DOESN”T adore them quite as much as you do. Teach them to control what they can. And please, celebrate the victory of not falling apart when things are unfair. That’s an awesome picture. I wish I had more of those in my baby’s album.

3. Failure. That’s a great one. There will be a time that your child doesn’t make something, a team, an honors class, the starring role in the play…What an opportunity to remind them that their value lies within and not without. What a time to remind them of your own failures, foibles and flops. What a time to discover other talents and passions. When we are not afraid of failure, and when we don’t attach it to self worth, all it represents is a moment in time. What a victory it is to fail and not fall apart. I would love to have those pictures in my album. They would give me confidence that my child is ready for the world.

4. The First Time You Talked To Your Child About Oral Sex, Drugs, Alcohol, Sex, Homosexuality, and Other Difficult Subjects. Of course this picture would be priceless if it included the two of you. I wish we could see ourselves as we even think about addressing these things with our children. Our faces are hysterical, our children’s faces are mortified. Truly it is an amazing moment.

5. Pimples, bras, underarm hair, periods. Of course the last thing we want is to further embarrass or make our teen more self conscious by snapping pictures of these times, but they belong in the album because they can be frightening, thrilling or abysmal for our children. While physical development may not confer emotional development, as parents, these changes must remind us to reflect on the fact that our children are transitioning into adulthood. We may need to change our parenting style. We made need to become creative so that those adolescent grunts become something more like sentences. Please, please, please, keep your children communicating with you. Keep trying until you find something that works! That hairy, scary, smelly boy who is bent over his phone texting or gaming is still a human being who wants to be connected to you. Work at it. You won’t be sorry.

6. Goodbye: Ugh. I literally had to reach for a tissue just typing that word. Goodbye is a doozy but it’s the whole point right? We want our children to become independent, don’t we? So welcome those goodbyes, the first days of school, the first day of an away camp, and make sure there are some goodbyes in their life before the BIG goodbye. College is terrifying, our children need to be fortified before we push them into the waters of independence. We don’t want them to drown. The more experience they have with independence, the more we have tried to instill this important lesson in little incremental steps, the better off everyone is…

I didn’t make it to 10. I’m sure there’s more. LIfe is filled with everything under the sun. The point is to not avoid it. The more your child safely experiences with your gentle support, the better off they will be, and really, what album would you really be more proud of, the “ooh and ahh” album or the “looks like they made it after all?”

I know how I vote!

When That Time Out Chair Needs A Time Out

Parents who think that their children are always right should stop reading right here. But for the rest of us who struggle with less than perfect lives in which we have not even close to perfect children, please continue to read on…even if you are eating a Ding Dong or gosh darn it drinking a sugary cola…

I never thought my kids were perfect. My husband is worse. He found toddlerhood excessively trying, and why not? Tantrums in the middle of lovely dinners, Magic Marker spread not so magically on the wall, waking up at hours even the moon found excessively early…we had plenty of hard physical evidence that raising children would not be conflict free. So, with three active boys under the age of four, we quickly decided that our favorite piece of furniture in the house, possibly in the universe, was a garage sale chair that we transformed into what is fondly referred to as the “Time Out Chair.”

We loved this chair. Its seat became a 8″ X 12″ island of sanity in a house that was often completely and utterly insane. It was the only place where adult jurisdiction ruled. A place that honored respect, manners, and consequences. It was a place that reassured us that even though our children weren’t perfect, we could clearly and definitively articulate to them what was and wasn’t acceptable in their behavior. We used this chair a lot. It was so much a part of our daily experience, that our oldest son, in a moment of proactive brilliance, asked if the chair could be placed next to the Christmas Tree for the holidays.

I loved that moment. We were all just doing our best, and tinsel sure does make time outs look better.

But somewhere during the upper reaches of elementary school the chair disappeared. The kids had more control over their impulses and frankly they just got too big. And that was good. They were still making mistakes, but the mistakes were different and Time Outs didn’t seem like the right fix.

And during this time nobody had become perfect. Not the kids, and not us either. We flinched when our own behavior conflicted with actions we expected from our sons. We flinched harder when their behavior conflicted with what we expected from ourselves; decency, kindness, hard work, and good manners. Adolescent eye rolls are the harshest mirror my soul has ever faced.

We trudged on, and overall, it seemed to be working. We were consistent and we tried hard to be intentional about the things we thought were important.

So…it was a complete shock to find myself suddenly missing the Time Out Chair. It happened one day when my youngest son practically dunked me in a river of disrespect.

Yikes.

There are a whole other “firsts” of parenting that don’t get put in cute photo albums. Teenage rebellion is one of those things. My son and I had locked horns. He was convinced that he was right, his friends were right and I was simply an idiot.

It happens. Luckily I’m not new to being considered an idiot, so I didn’t do anything dramatic like faint or call 911. I also recognized that the conversation wasn’t going well, and that the harder I tried the worst it went.

I think one of my best talents in life is recognizing when things aren’t going well. A few hurricanes, health problems, and other major and minor traumas have been instrumental in teaching me this forced humility.

I mulled over the situation for days. This was an important fork in the road for both of us. He’s only 13, if I couldn’t get through to him now, then it would only become more difficult as he got older and the stakes got higher.

At three o’clock in the morning it came to me. Fortuitously, I happened to be driving to the airport with this same child. My minivan always brings out the best in me. I knew that I couldn’t get him to admit that some of his friends were jerks, I knew that I couldn’t make him realize why his disrespectful behavior was disrespectful but…

I didn’t need to. I changed tactics. I set my sights on something we could agree on. Something that he couldn’t roll his eyes about, something so fundamentally simple that I almost laughed out loud when it came to me.

GRATITUDE

I explained that I expected him to be grateful. Not just when it suited him, or when he was alone with me, but ALL the time. Grateful for opportunities to play the sports he loves with his friends, grateful for his friends, grateful for his coaches, the food they eat during away games etc…etc…etc…

And then very, very quietly, not as a threat, but as an anchor, I told him that if didn’t act gratefully then there would be no sports, because I didn’t care about his growth as an athlete if his growth as a person was being compromised.

There was no eye rolling. There was no disagreeing. We were both really grateful for that.

I’m here to tell you that now, several MONTHS after this incidence, we are still kidding each other about “Being Grateful.” Yes, we are both overdoing it a bit, but it’s nice. A person never had to go to a doctor complaining of excess gratitude, and humor is a lovely way to confer that you got the message loud and clear.

I don’t even miss that Time Out Chair.

2500 Miles Away

Yesterday I dropped off my seventeen year old to a summer program that is 2500 miles away from our kitchen table. 2500 miles away from our washing machines, his two brothers and our three dogs.

And today I am sad.

I love that child who has become, before my wide and wondering eyes, more of a man than a boy. I am wrestling with the angst of not knowing whether he will remember to brush his teeth, eat his breakfast, and do his laundry. I am already missing his smiles, his quirky sense of humor, his oratory on subjects as complicated as world history or as mundane as why his brothers need to be exiled to Siberia.

Yet there is an undeniable buoyancy to my sadness. Something effervescent that keeps my sorrow from becoming maudlin.

I am happy for him. Proud. Delighted in his independence. I am in love with the gentle hum of his newly sprouted wings as he soars away from us on his first significant solo flight.

So today I wanted to share some of our baby steps that enabled him to take this enormous step, because he wasn’t pushed out of the nest, and he certainly didn’t take a “helicopter” ride out of it either. Even though we messed up plenty, my husband and I tried hard to nurture his independence. We did that by valuing his autonomy and resilience.

And it wasn’t easy.

Resilience is never the easy path. It is a road laden with potholes, terrible forks, and hills that seem insurmountable. It is a trail fraught with unfairness, disappointment, heart ache and the undiluted, indisputable hardness of reality. Allowing my child to journey down this path was probably the hardest and most rewarding thing I did as a parent.

And this is what it looked like. I did not run into school every time something difficult or unfair happened to my child. We would speak about it, and, if there wasn’t anything unsafe, I tried to transfer as much responsibility to him regarding the situation as I could. Simple things, like asking him what he was going to do, or expressing curiosity about how he was going to handle the adversity.

It wasn’t easy. Trying to empower an adolescent is hard. They are young, unexperienced and naive. It is much easier to jump in and with our adult eyes to “solve” or interject our worldly opinions on them. But that wouldn’t foster autonomy. Having things go “well” isn’t the same as letting your child learn how to handle their own affairs. In the beginning their decisions aren’t so great, and they’re not good at confronting the teachers, friends, or coaches who are part of their conflicts. The good news is that with practice they get better.

So now that my son is 2500 miles away, I know that those times were worth it. I know that he knows how to handle bumps in the road. And because of that, I don’t need to crowd him. The road he is on belongs to him. And I am the happiest sad I have ever been in my entire life.